EVANGELICAL RUSKIN

First Things | 8/31/2018 | Peter J. Leithart
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2019 is the centennial year of John Ruskin’s birth, and he is suddenly all the rage. London’s Two Temple Place is hosting “John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing,” and Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery will exhibit “John Ruskin: Art & Wonder” later this year. A new edition of Ruskin’s study of Giotto is in the works. A BBC essay by Daisy Dunn ponders whether Ruskin was “the most important man of the last 200 years.”

Ruskin never completely disappeared from view. I read selections of his art criticism in my college anthology of Victorian literature. His writings on political economy have remained popular on the Left, and his works on architecture fuel new urbanism. John Milbank has been commending Ruskin for decades, and John Hughes included a chapter on Ruskin and William Morris in The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism.

Celebrations - Ruskin - Genius - Role - Christianity

Celebrations of Ruskin’s polymathic genius, however, have usually missed the role of Christianity in his outlook and writing. His personal journey was a crooked one. Ruskin experienced what he described as an “un-conversion” one Sunday in 1858, shelving his severely Protestant upbringing for a stew of Catholicism and aestheticism, spiced with a dash of private mythology. But his childhood evangelicalism stayed with him. He appeals to theology and Scripture at key points in his aesthetic theory, criticism, and musings on political economy. His use of the Bible is more stimulating, expansive, and practical than that of many who remained committed evangelicals.

In the second volume of Modern Painters, for instance, Ruskin elaborates the concept of “typical beauty,” beauty that symbolizes “Divine attributes in matter.” God’s unity isn’t inconsistent with variety, but refers to God’s “inherence in all things that be, without which no creature of any kind could hold existence for a moment.” Creation exhibits divine unity-in-variety, and human art too should aim...
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